Monthly Archives: November 2012

Look at me. I am old, but I’m happy.

I turned 55 last week.  That’s old.  Don’t blow smoke up my Depends by denying it.  THIS guy (who rode out Hurricane Sandy above his marine-goods store) is 55.

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So’s this guy.

Steve Buscemi - 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards 2012: Red Carpet Part 1

And, so am I.

It was George Orwell who said that, by age 50, we all have the faces we deserve.  Though, the face, of course, is barely the beginning.  My hair is more grey than black.  My chin is no longer solo.  Thanks to an arthritic knee, my dogged physical challenges (walking the entire 35-mile shoreline of Manhattan, biking across Ireland, running more than 20 yards) are no longer possible.  I know damned well that I am old.  But, here’s the thing.

It’s traditional for we golden-agers, from late-night comics to your uncle Heshie, to complain about aging.  Martin Amis, who is usually less trite in his wit, moans that “time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.”  Nora Ephron made a late-in-life career of writing volumes of Oh-I’m-So-Old humor.  (Admittedly, this one is pretty funny: “We all look good, except for our necks. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck”). Some of us turn ourselves into the butts of those jokes:

Of course, it’s almost as pedestrian for us “active adults” to swear that we embrace our advancing age; as Pat Benatar put it, to “wear the life I’ve lived.”  Mitch Albom’s tedious takeaway, after weeks of interviews with his decripit and dying former professor, was “embrace aging.” Nonsense.  It seems to me that there are some clear-eyed souls who accept aging rather than fighting it; but I’m not convinced that anyone embraces it (except authors in their 30’s who are embracing the craggy aphoristic wisdom of their former sociology professors) or, surely, cherishes it.

I don’t give much truck either to those who laugh off aging with “I can’t remember where my keys are” jokes or those who insist that they look forward to their old age.  Perhaps some people find their aging funny, and perhaps some people are thrilled that they’re old, but I doubt it.

My advancing age is neither funny nor embraceable to me; but it sure is interesting.

55 feels like a watershed age to me.  It feels like the beginning of the next phase of my life. I am, by nature or by lack-of-parental-nurture, a driven person.  I don’t cherish success, but I fear failure, and I fight that fear by being an over-achiever.  My teeth have been clenched and my stomach has been tightened for most of my 55 years.  It’s not for nothing that the dice players call two fives a “hard ten.”

55, though, feels like the start of the Great Unclenching.  Maybe, if I’ve stayed a stride ahead of failure for 55 years, I’m at the point where I can begin to coast a little.  Old age, and especially age 60 and beyond, feels to me like the time when a person can exhale a bit, no longer need to feel constantly productive, no longer need to feel always masterful.  Although 54 felt like middle age, for some reason 55 feels like the beginning of the slow relaxing into old age.

This watershed feeling at age 55 is more than just a coincidence of the base-10 Hindu-Arabic numbering system.  Scientists have determined that 55 is the age when our bodies suddenly stop trying to fight the onset of decay:  Beginning at age 55, we no longer repair our damaged DNA or fight off mutant cells.  Even more evidence of this turning point can be found in David Shields’ lavishly-researched “autobiography of my body,” called “The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.”

Although that book assembles a torrent of facts, I left it with a single unforgettable realization: Like all other species and genera, we humans are reproduction machines.  We are formed so as to create more humans, and we have no biological function beyond that.  Not surprisingly, then, once our bodies pass the prime age for reproduction, they begin to deteriorate.  It is only a quirk of medical science and our own vain love for existence that we live for decades after our biological function has passed.   Our bodies, however, know that the Big Show is over, and methodically begin the decommissioning process.  Not only culturally, but also biologically, we old folks are no longer relevant.

After all, it’s not as if we suddenly age because our bodies are plain worn out, like the balky parts of a jalopy.  There is no mechanical reason for our skin to lose its elasticity, our fingernail growth to slow, and our ability to hear high frequencies to diminish….except that we are examples of planned obsolescence, which kicks in as soon as prime child-producing years are over.

I am only a week into 55, so most of the changes of old age are still before me.  I don’t take any medications; I can walk, see, and hear well; I am no more forgetful and full of repeated anecdotes than I was a decade ago.  So, I am fascinated with what the next decades will bring.

For now, I have two questions, and theoretical answers.

First:  Why aren’t old folks bored silly?

My grandmother spent her last decades watching televised golf and bowling, as well as doing humdrum household tasks in her small Newark apartment and very little else.  Yet, these things satisfied her.  My mother, soon to be 83, can spin an entire day’s heated conversation out of the best way to drive to the drug store.  From my experiences with them, my theory is that we are mercifully programmed such that our bandwidth grows more narrow when our lives grow more simple.  That is, when we have less stimulation, because we have trouble walking, hearing, or carrying out complicated plans, we somehow become satisfied with that reduced stimulation.  (This has always seemed to me to be similar to how younger men and women are attracted to partners of their own ages, when partners of that age had seemed unpalatably ancient only a few years earlier).

Second: Why aren’t old folks continually stoned?

I’m not much of a drinker, but it’s always occurred to me that the “golden years,” with few responsibilities and long stretches of time to fill, would scream out for intoxicants.  After all, another group of people with few responsibilities and little to do — that is, Hollywood stars — seem to inhale drugs and booze during their off hours.  Yet, in my mom’s retirement community, I see nary a glass of Chardonnay.  My theory is that we are mercifully wired in a way that pumps up the dopamine or serotonin or endorphins as our bodies decline.   This may also explain the film “Cocoon.”

So, now I am old.  I’ve done my share of repopulating the species; I’ve gathered the usual Monopoly-game pieces; I get called “sir” more than “dude.” Ah, well. Here’s waiting for the serotonin to kick in.

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The Israeli Spring

The former chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov explained this week why he won’t run for president in Russia.  “In chess you have fixed rules and unpredictable results,” he said. “In Russian politics it’s the opposite.”  The Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which may now be the whirling toward a full-on regional war, is the opposite as well.  The rules are changing daily, but the outcome seems drearily predictable.  And, I think I might know why.

There’s nothing new to say about the latest crisis or what led up to it.  Since the failure of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and the disaster of the 2006 Lebanese war, and with the growing risk that Iran will build a nuclear bomb, Israel has become governed more and more by its right-wing and religious groups, and has become more heedlessly aggressive toward its neighbors.  Since the election of Hamas in 2006 and the rise of Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere, the Palestinians have been emboldened.  War may have not been inevitable, but it sure isn’t a surprise.

Neither is there anything convincing to say about who is at fault in the latest kerfuffle.  Israel might reasonably argue that it is shelling Gaza only to destroy the mechanisms by which Gazans are lofting rockets over the border; but that argument doesn’t explain the hundreds of  bombs being dropped on Gaza, wiping out entire families to eliminate one Hamas commander.  Hamas may claim that bombs are its only currency in fighting Israeli oppression; but that’s a difficult rationale, and ignores the extent to which bombs are a cause of that oppression rather than the solution to it.

I do have my own perspective, though, on the nature of this conflict.

My perspective comes from my being a secular American Jew.  “Secular Jew” is the sort of oxymoron that should mean nothing at all.  After all, what is a “non-religious Christian”?  Oddly, however, it means something very specific:  It means a person who was born Jewish, who does not go to synagogue or practice the faith, but who feels a kinship and loyalty to the Jewish community worldwide.  We love Sholem Aleichem stories.  We cry at Fiddler On the Roof.  We eat deli.  We feel a guilty pleasure when crackpots talk about Jews being in charge of international finance and world media.  In other words, when religion is removed from Judaism, what remains is a familiar sort of ethnic tribe.  (Heck, we are THE “Tribe”).  And, it is this same tribalism that is at play in Gaza today.

As with many secular American Jews (and Christians for that matter), virtually all of my religious training took place when I was in grade school.  Jewish history, as taught to young Jews, is painted in broad caricature:   We Children of Abraham are a big-hearted, downtrodden people.  God promised us the land between Egypt and the Euphrates.  We were forced out of that Promised Land, and since that time we have been inexplicably persecuted by monstrously evil bad guys.  Our lessons were a roundelay of Hellenization,  Blood Libels,  Crusades, and of course The Holocaust.

So, when it came to contemporary Middle Eastern politics, my Hebrew School lessons were very simple.  We are entitled to the Land of Israel, and we have defended it valiantly against our rabidly Jew-hating neighbors (at that time, mostly Egypt, Jordan and Syria).  We are the good guys, and we always win, no matter the odds, because God is on our side.  Pass the challah.

My feelings about Israel remained chiaroscuro for decades.  As with many  American Jews, although I identified with the sufferings of the oppressed, this did not extend to the Palestinians, whom I considered to be vacant-eyed mobs of violent fanatics, ganged up against the good-hearted Israelis.  In my mind, the Middle East was like a Phillip Roth novel.

Then, in 2005, I visited Israel.

It was August 15, 2005; the day that 250,000 Israelis stormed the streets of Jerusalem to protest Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

I watched the protest from a street cafe in the Old City.

It was in Israel that I realized two critical things.  First, the Arabs were not vacant-eyed mobs of violent fanatics, nor were they good-hearted victims.  Second, neither were the Israelis.

As I wandered through Israel in 2005, I was astounded at the way Arabs are treated there.  Unlike the wide boulevards and charming shops in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Arab communities like East Jerusalem and Bethlehem are dirty, crowded, and poor.  Although a large percentage of Arabs are Israeli citizens, they are treated as second-class citizens at best.   In the few places where Jews and Arabs coexist, for example in the Old City of Jerusalem, the anger and hostility between Jews and Arabs is palpable.   Like blacks in the Jim Crow south, Arabs are pushed into the poor quarters of the country, harassed by always-present police, and held in constant suspicion.

I was also surprised at the Israelis I met.  They were nothing like American Jews.  They were hard-edged and aggressive to one another, though very protective and gentle toward their own families.  It seemed to be a “me-first” culture.  The shopkeepers were ruthless bargainers.  Jews made no secret of hating and fearing Arabs.

In other words, and despite my Hebrew School notions, what I saw in Israel were two Semitic tribes, playing out a tribal battle of class and territory.  The Israelis and Palestinians were so alike in their fierce tribal identities, in their hard bargaining, in their sly way of arguing, that they could just as easily have been cousins.   Their conflict was not the good-hearted Jews against the fanatic Muslims, nor vice versa.  It was a blood-sport turf war between haves and have-nots, not much different from similar wars in Northern Ireland or Sudan or Kosovo.  Like those conflicts, the Israeli/Palestinian turf war is clothed as religious strife.  It isn’t.  It is yet another Stone-age tribal feud, made even more so because Israelis and Palestinians are almost identically hot-blooded, vengeful, and wily tribes.

When I look at the Middle East this way, I can’t be optimistic about peace.  Like Saddam Hussein, who brought about his own demise rather than admit to his neighbors that Iraq no longer had weapons of mass destruction (or, even more characteristically, like the Iraqi Information Minister who denied that Americans had entered Baghdad), the Israelis and Palestinians do not seem likely to negotiate honestly, put aside old hatreds, or consider their own futures in the way that we Americans expect.  The moves in this chess game may change, but the outcome – stalemate – seems fixed.

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Testing My Sophisticated Theory of Sports Betting

Well, the power is finally back on, just in time for Sunday football viewing.  Although I generally have no idea which teams are better than their rivals, I do have my own pet theory for picking the winners.  But, does it work?

Because I am male, and sometimes am found around a water cooler or in a gym locker room, I’ve often heard The Talk:  Yeah, one guy will say:  Rex Ryan oughta play Tim Tebow.  Duke is gonna lose all of its best players when they graduate next season.  How about that kid who’s the first Heisman Trophy winner to be home-schooled?

I say  nothing.  But, silently, I ask an important question.  HOW DO YOU HAVE THE TIME OR THE GREY MATTER TO LEARN AND REMEMBER THESE THINGS?  Who is the coach of the Houston Texans (and, when did they stop being the Houston Oilers)? What was the key play in the last Army-Navy game?  How do you pronounce “Favre”?  There are 32 NFL teams and 119 Division 1 college teams…how much of a brain does it take to know all of the skinny on each of them?

I do not know the Te-Bow, the Aaron Rogers belt celebration (looped here like a cheesy porno money-shot compilation reel), or the Icky Icky Shuffle.  I watch football because it’s an amazing spectator sport, carried on by superhuman athletes in often subhuman weather conditions.  So, I am catholic in my choice of games to watch, and will happily watch an hour of the game without ever checking who won.

Nevertheless; I have a system for choosing the winner of any game, any time, pro or college, in any sport.  I simply take the teams’ names and consider which of those anthropomorphized creatures would defeat the other.  A Jet would surely dismember a Seahawk.  A Patriot is an honorable thing to be, but would not stand much of a chance against a Jaguar.  Woe to those teams that chose merely mortal sobriquets, like Packers, Vikings, or Texans.  All rugged types, but no match for a Titan or a Giant.  And, of course, let’s not even discuss the Saints.

I’ve never actually considered whether this method (YES, it’s a method) actually works.  So, let’s give it a look-see.

First, as Bill Clinton might say, we need to define what “works” means.  It looks like there are plenty of analysts out there who blurt forth weekly predictions about who will win NFL games.  Let’s choose the oracle for NFL Network and NFL.com, Eric Harrison.   (He was also the football guy for Fox News, but let’s assume they do better at predicting football scores thant they do at predicting presidential elections).

Eric calls just over 2/3 of the games correctly (going into today’s games, he’s 58 right and 26 wrong).  He’s crowing about that record, so let’s assume that’s pretty darned good.  So, that will be the standard.

Now, let’s consider today’s matchups, and apply The Method.

BILLS – PATRIOTS:  You would’ve guessed that the team is named after Buffalo Bill Cody, which would introduce an element of gunplay into this battle.  But, it is actually named after a young bison named Billy.  So, you’ve got a guy with a musket versus a buffalo.  Which of those species is now almost extinct?  PATRIOTS.

RAIDERS – RAVENS:  Here, you’ve got a pirate up against a bird.  Even Hitchcock would say, “nevermore.”  RAIDERS.

BRONCOS-PANTHERS:  Would a panther be able to defeat a horse?  It would be close call.  The Panther mascot, however, is named “Sir Purr,” who prides himself on “a league-leading 451 hugs ‘purr’ appearance.”  ’nuff said.  BRONCOS.

GIANTS – BENGALS:  There are giants, and then there are Giants.  According to this blog, the Biblical giants were somewhere between 6’8″ (4.5 cubits) and 11’10” (based on the coffin size of King Og of Bashan).  Then again, the blog also contains “handy hints” on how to know when you’re having sex with a fallen angel.  Anyway, let’s assume that the Maras visualized their Giant as being on the tall side as giants go, with massive feet that can stomp a tiger.  So, GIANTS.

LIONS – VIKINGS:  Vikings, on the other hand, are of ordinary height.  LIONS.

TITANS – DOLPHINS:  Titan, I assume, means one of the ancient Gods who ruled the Earth until they were overthrown by Zeus, and not a Titan of Industry, say like Mitt Romney.  So, TITANS.

FALCONS – SAINTS:  Bird of Prey versus Born to Pray.  FALCONS.

CHARGERS – BUCCANEERS:  The Chargers were so named because the owners liked the fact that fans at other stadiums yelled “Charge!” and sounded bugles.  This suggests that the Chargers are soldiers charging into battle.  With guns.  The Buccaneers’ mascot, Captain Fear, carries only a sword.  CHARGERS.

COWBOYS – EAGLES:  It’s against federal law to kill an eagle; but then what do cowboys care about the law?  COWBOYS.

RAMS – 49ERS:  A peaceful bend in the river, where prospectors pan for gold.  Suddenly, a male sheep butts in, with fire in his eyes.  It’s not easy to tell how this will turn out; but since the San Francisco mascot is named Sourdough Sam, I’d say RAMS.

TEXANS – BEARS:  Although there was a day when a Texan meant a sure-shooting big-hatted ornery rattlesnake of a gentleman, that was before the Bushes.  BEARS.

Okay.  It’s 11AM Sunday morning.  Those are the predictions.  Who will win, the NFL analyst or The Method? Let the test begin!

MONDAY MORNING UPDATE:  So, out of the twelve games above, The Method called three correctly, and one was a tie.  That’s not great; BUT guess what?  Eric Harrison got only five out of twelve right.  I don’t know if there is such a thing, but I will declare that the difference between The Method’s results and Eric Harrison’s results are within the statistical margin of error.  Also, the 49er versus the Ram, which I said was almost too close to call, turned out to be a tie!  I am now blinded with science.  See you at the track…I like I Want Revenge over Shy Romance in the fourth.

 

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The Gruntled Contrarian: Might A Sensible Person Vote For Mitt Romney?

This Tuesday,  close to seventy million people are going to vote to elect Mitt Romney president.  It is easy to dismiss these folks as either (a) mouth-breathing guv’m’t-hating Militiamen with confederate flags hanging in the rear windows of their pickup trucks or (b) hedge-fund-managing filet-eating country-club Protestants named Bunky and Missy, and to chalk up their votes to self-interest or ignorance.  But, to argue ad populum as Elvis did back when Eisenhower was president, can seventy million people all be stupidly wrong?  Inspired by a friend who asked her Facebook mischpucha to state a reasoned argument in favor of Romney for President (no one responded), here is my answer.

The argument against Obama

First, of course, is the argument that Romney hoped would be sufficient to carry the day:  The referendum on Obama’s first term.

If this election were simply about Obama’s performance as president, even we Obama supporters have to admit, it’s been a rocky road since those heady Audacity of Hope days four years ago.  Those four years seem to have had a clear arc:  Like other presidents (think FDR, Reagan, Johnson), our guy front-loaded his term with a slew of policy initiatives.  Although we cheered his audacity, it seemed that Obama trampled Congress by ramming through the Affordable Care Act, the closure of Gitmo, and the attempted cap-and-trade legislation, when those issues seemed so much less important than rescuing the free-falling economy.  Then, after a rumpus of Tea Party candidates won their mid-term elections and threatened to hold the debt ceiling increase hostage to their demands for lower spending, our guy backed down meekly, agreeing to cut $917 trillion from the budget through the tragically ill-considered “Super Committee.”  Since then, he has been a nondescript centrist with a seemingly fireless belly, leading finally to his what-me-worry performance in the first presidential debate last month.

So, the first defensible reason for a vote for Romney:  Our guy seems to have lost his fire; time to try a fresh horse.

Second is the general argument from fear and concern.  Yes, housing starts are up, unemployment is lessening steadily, and the stock market is at record highs.  But, if you’re out of work, or upside-down on your home’s value, or just frightened that the national debt will threaten Medicare, Social Security, and national strength, these Budget Office statistics are no more meaningful than the rosy agricultural news that used to be announced in Pravda.  Admittedly, Romney’s plans to boost the national economy are either naive (we’ll force China to normalize its currency!) or mundane (we’ll eliminate wasteful spending!) or nonexistent (I’ll figure it all out with Congress!); but, the top-line claims of lower spending, lower taxes and twelve million new jobs speak directly to people who are afraid for the future.  (And, credit has to be given to Romney for even whispering that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are not sustainable in their present form, which is the dirty little subject no politician wants to touch).

Third is the argument for Romney himself.  True, it is difficult to argue in favor of Romney’s policies, because he has proved himself to be the Don E. Mobile of politics.  (Perhaps because he is indifferent to policy when it interferes with ambition; but more likely because he is trying to serve so many interest groups at the same time).  After an entire primary and campaign season of mouthing the lines of the hard social and fiscal right, he showed up at the first presidential debate as a moderate.

But, then, most voters are not policy wonks.  It would not be stupid to look at Romney as follows:  He is an energetic and enthusiastic politician; he has experience running things, from Bain Capital to the Olympics to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Obama, of course, ran nothing other than the Harvard Law Review until he took office); and, he has some history of being able to build a consensus between political parties.  A person could sensibly conclude that Romney will be a businesslike president who will bring new energy to the job and might even break the logjam in Washington (especially if we Democrats continue to accept every unctuous one-sided offer of compromise from the other guys).

Perhaps the Argument for Romney is best summed up in the Orlando Sentinel he-ain’t-great-but-give-the-guy-a-chance endorsement, excerpted below:

Romney is not our ideal candidate for president. We’ve been turned off by his appeals to social conservatives and immigration extremists. Like most presidential hopefuls, including Obama four years ago, Romney faces a steep learning curve on foreign policy. But, he has a strong record of leadership to run on. He built a successful business. He rescued the 2002 Winter Olympics from scandal and mismanagement. As governor of Massachusetts, he worked with a Democrat-dominated legislature to close a $3billion budget deficit without borrowing or raising taxes, and pass the health plan that became a national model.  This is Romney’s time to lead, again. If he doesn’t produce results — even with a hostile Senate — we’ll be ready in 2016 to get behind someone else who will.

So, there you have it.  Translated into a bumper sticker:  Romney.  Hell, It’s Worth A Try.

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